– On a recent weeknight on Ipanema Beach, lights on a nearby hillside sparkled, Brazilians drank beer at seaside cafes, local rugby coaches worked with children of the favelas, and a man from Hopkins wearing a cow costume became an international ambassador.

The Olympic spirit might be found in Simone Biles’ smile or Michael Phelps’ grimace. It was certainly present when the father of a woman whose sport was introduced into the Olympics this year traveled to Brazil, Googled “Rio rugby,” got on a subway and tried to link the kids he coaches in Minnesota to the kids learning the game as waves lapped near their sand field.

Dan Johnson coached rugby at the University of Minnesota. He met his wife, Jennie, there when she played for the Gophers. Their daughter, Katie, started for the first-ever U.S. women’s rugby sevens Olympic team.

The Johnsons turned their Olympic experience into a family vacation, and Johnson turned the family vacation into a chance to hold a fundraiser for the children of the favelas, the infamous slums that hover above Rio like storm clouds.

“The organizers here are trying to get these kids to work together instead of warring against each other,” Dan Johnson said. “They’re starting with the kids, trying to get their minds going in the right direction, and hopefully it will spread.”

On Friday night in Hopkins, Katie attended a fundraiser for Hopkins rugby, which Dan coaches. “I’m going to take a portion of that money and send some of it to these guys to form a relationship,” Dan said. “I want to show them pictures of us working with kids and let them know this is going on other places in the world. As far as the money, even the smallest amount down here is big.”

Johnson took a wrong turn on one of his adventures and wound up in a favela. “I’m one of those daring people, so I’m walking up the street,” he said. “About a block and a half of trash and poverty later, I turned and walked back. I felt like, ‘I don’t need to see this.’ I knew it was bad. But I can’t imagine living like that.”

Enjoying a beer and wearing his cow costume, Dan waved at the restaurants and condos on the beach. “And yet you have all of this,” he said, “and it’s just blocks away.”

Because rugby became an Olympic sport, Dan and Jennie traveled to Rio and met Haylli Weintraub, a young woman from New York. She joined Jive Brasil, which offers international volunteering experiences, and worked in Rio during Brazilian Carnival making clothes for the poor.

She loved Brazil and turned a six-week stay into a seven-month adventure, switching to “rugby placement,” in which sport is a vehicle to help and unite poor children.

“I love it so much and loved the kids so much that I wanted to stay,” she said. “I’m only leaving because my sister is getting married.”

Weintraub lives in the favelas and said she feels safer there than on the streets of Ipanema, where she might be mistaken for a lost tourist. “In the favelas there is such a community feel,” she said. “Little kids run around without their parents because the surrounding families will watch out for them.”

As the Johnsons and Weintraub sat at a table, dozens of children wearing yellow shirts given to them by local rugby organizers darted and pounded each other. The organizers took many of the kids to Olympic rugby matches.

Dan plays for the Metropolitan Rugby Club that travels the country. They wore different costumes to different tournaments. Once, in Aspen, they put on their cow costumes during halftime, pretended to graze on the field and let kids ride them.

“It’s a very social game,” Johnson said. “We always try to have fun.”

The kids on the beach were doing just that. “I’ve never seen anybody as passionate about anything as these kids are about rugby,” Weintraub said. “This takes them out of the favelas, gives them purpose. And I never see them here without a smile on their faces. It’s inspiring.”

 

Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com